I Moved To Oaxaca

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Earlier this week I found myself with two consecutive days off in a row. Wow! Even better, Greg also had the same two days off. Unheard of! We looked at our maps and books for a good overnight destination, and quickly settled on Tehuacan, up in Puebla state.

Now, why Tehuacan? It’s not on the tourist track, its local craft industry is carved onyx which I have seen a lifetime of courtesy of Tijuana, and it’s not even in Oaxaca, a state with many corners still left to explore.

This is why: it’s got a regional archeology museum, the valley is one of the possible birthplaces of corn cultivation in the Americas, it’s far enough away to be a roadtrip but close enough not to exhaust us getting there and back, and we like it. Or we thought we liked it. We’d passed through once before on our way home at the end of Roadtrip Verano 2004, and even though we’d ended up on the edge of town in a Love Motel, the town piqued our curiosity. It’s tidy and has a nice bustle to it. And it’s got more pet shops and aquariums than I think we’ve seen in all the rest of Mexico. We wanted to get a closer look at these pet-loving people.

Tehuacan is only 2.5 hours away via the toll road, but I figured we’d likely take the cuota back to Oaxaca, so I wanted to take a free but slow way up. The only problem was, Wednesday night had been El Grito, the shout for Independence Day, and we had been up late watching fireworks, drinking mezcal, and making party talk in Spanglish with the staff and students at Oaxaca International. I consider it a victory that we were able to leave as early as we did, which was 2pm Thursday. Ouch! Half the day gone.

And we took the free way anyway, even though we knew it would get us into Tehuacan late in the afternoon. But we didn’t care; we were excited to be on the road and taking what we thought was a new road for us. It wasn’t until we descended out of the mountains and into the awfully hot and dry Canada that we remembered, Hey, we’ve been here before. That little valley’s climate is unmistakable.

Someday I’d like to drive through there again when I’m not on my way to somewhere else. Cuicatlan is supposed to put on an interesting tianguis, when the mountain folk come down to market, and twice now I’ve noticed a sign for Santa Maria Ixcatlan, just outside Santiago Quiotepec, indicating a noteworthy church 46km up a dirt road. Looking at my atlas I see the dirt road goes through the mountains and out to the cuota at Tequixtepec. Looks like fun.

We passed Teotitlan de Flores Magon and crossed the border into Puebla, leaving the Canada and entering the valley of Tehuacan. Immediately Hwy 135, twisty and narrow but otherwise fine, degraded into a potholed mess, with cars and trucks in both directions frantically swerving to avoid the worst of the bumps and voids. Mario Cart!

Somewhere in the valley, Zinacatepec or maybe Ajalpan, we passed a roadside restaurant with I can only think of as Revenge of the Happy Foods. The iron “hot tub” and wood paddle the pig is wielding are the tools used to cook carnitas Michoacan style.

As we got closer to Tehuacan, near San Diego Chalma, we noticed people lining the sides of the highway, whole families. What’s going on? We drove up on an ambulance with its lights on and its back door opened and I wondered, is there an accident? Are all these people looky-lous? No way! I eventually got around the ambulance, which wasn’t going very fast at all, and saw a trio of bikes and a runner with a race number pinned to his t-shirt. Ah, road race! I punched my hazards on and crept up the highway, passing strings of runners, support guys on bikes, and what seemed like everyone living along Hwy 135 sitting and standing along the side of the road, clapping and cheering each runner as they passed – and sometimes clapping and cheering the passing gueros, too. Some families were handing out bags of water and sports drink. And this went on for miles, all the way into Tehuacan! It was incredibly sweet to see all the pueblos turn out, enjoying the race and encouraging all the runners.

The finish line was in Tehuacan; that, and coming into town from a new direction got us lost pretty quick. It’s a little city, though, and as soon as we found the zocalo we knew where we were and how to get to where we were going. Zooming up Heroes de Independencia, we saw a corner building decorated like a pagoda – and it was called The Pagoda, and advertised Chinese food. Hmm! Then driving down Reforma we passed a place advertising Japanese food. Whoa! And a couple of American “western-style” restaurants. What was going on?

We checked into a hotel out of our Sanborn’s guide, the Hotel Monroy, and got a huge room. Spotlessly clean. Fluffy white cotton towels. Polyester pillows (that’s a good thing; the cotton ones are like bricks). A showerhead positioned above head height. Cable TV! And to remind us that we were still in Mexico, mirrors and a bathroom door well below head height.

We were a bit tired of being in the car, since it had taken us about six hours via the free way, so instead of hopping back in the car and driving down to The Pagoda, we walked up the street a few doors to the Japanese restaurant, Susushi. We both adore Asian food, and have had almost none since moving to Oaxaca 14 months ago. Oh, except for the Chinese food so bad G couldn’t even eat it, or the “sushi” we’d had with Tony at Kyoto – and had never even wanted to go back to. Thai? Indian? Cambodian? Forget it! Not even possible.

So I was practically trembling with excitement when the chef/owner came out ... in a little Japanese work jacket (a yukuta?) and handed us our menus. And the menus featured Japanese food! (Once burned by Kyoto, twice shy.) We picked gyoza, some mixed tempura, and two maki rolls to share. I think they gyoza were frozen, but I didn’t care ‘cause he cooked them up in a soy sauce glaze. The tempura was fresh but I must remember that there is no tempura batter mix anywhere in Mexico, so it comes out more like a, geez, like what? Like the batter on a Mrs. Paul’s fish stick, thick and chewy. And I was a little disappointed that the tempura did not come with any battered jalapenos.

But the maki, oh the maki! They were not cream-cheese-and-rice rolls as we’d previously experienced, covered with mystery sprinkles a la the “crunchy roll.” We tried the narco roll, with a little cream cheese, true, but also mushrooms, avocado, and crab. Tasty. G had been dubious about the second roll, but I wanted to try it, and it was fantastic. Banana maki! It could have been awful. Our sushi chef used fried bananas inside the rice, coated it with breadcrumbs and fried it crisp, and served it with a dipping sauce of condensed milk – the usual topping for fried bananas in Oaxaca. We also added a little wasabi/soy sauce and mmm, fantastic! I was in seventh heaven.

We told the guy he had better sushi than anywhere in Oaxaca, which pleased him, and that we’d be back. That must have made him happy, too, as we were his only dinner customers that night.

After dinner we took a walk around town, scouting out stuff to do tomorrow. We saw an open aquarium and went in. Israel, the owner, knew some English from his school days and was eager to practice because, he said, none of his friends would speak English with him and there weren’t a lot of native speakers in town. His store actually had aquarium supplies, and some nice bowfront tanks, and he had a tank of beautiful angel fish, so I half-participated in the conversation while I watched the fishies.

Friday morning we strolled down to the zocalo because from our last visit we knew we’d be able to get an early breakfast there. We went back to Sabores and sat at the same table as last time. The zocalo was filled with swept-up piles of leaves and confetti, and it was pleasant to sit there and watch people on their way to work.

We walked up to the Complejo Cultural el Carmen, a pretty plaza near our hotel, and played string games on the steps while we waited for the museum to open. I was excited to see some books for sale, but they were all in Spanish, so I took a pass. The building and museum look new, with new displays for the artifacts, but somebody forgot to put up signs that actually give details and facts about the stuff. It was all very cursory. So we gawked at the painted pottery pieces, something we haven’t seen much of in other museums. Like yellow-and-white-and-blue-painted flutes with animal and human faces. And molds used to make mass-production ceramics. And strange, jester-looking articulated clay figures with hats that looked like half-peeled bananas. And carved wood pieces covered with turquoise and shell mosaics. Beautiful.

And, of course, corn cobs, from little things no bigger than the end of your thumb to later, full-size cobs. Archeologists have found cultivated corn cobs thousands of years old; some say 7,000 years or older. But they were just cobs, and I found myself underwhelmed. Americans are so difficult to entertain!

The museum also had a display on local palm and cane weaving, and some of the baskets had really interesting starts. And a room on the ecology of the valley, with some stuffed animals and birds, and pictures of others. Whoever skinned and mounted the specimens didn’t do too good a job; all the animals looked pissed off. Or maybe the unknown taxidermist had managed to capture their last expression in life, who knows?

And that was pretty much it for the museum. We were there maybe an hour, an hour and a half. So we went over to check out The Pagoda; G went in while I double-parked, but he soon came back out with a discouraged air. No menu, and the guy inside said they had some Chinese dishes, but mostly Mexican. Um.

And then it was back on the road, the toll road, to head home.


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